From Huahine you cannot see Bora Bora, our next destination. It is hidden out of sight behind Taha’a (aaaaa - one of those words you never know when to stop spelling). Taha’a shares a fringing reef with Raiatea and there is a sizeable lagoon between the two islands.
When we drew a line on the map between Huahine and Bora Bora, it went right through the middle of the Taha’a - Raiatea lagoon. On closer inspection, there was a pass on the Huahine side and a pass on the Bora Bora side, so we decided that it would be interesting to sail into and across the lagoon. It also made sense to break the journey up into two short days rather than one long leg which would involve setting off at 2am.
The Navionics image of Taha’a and Raiatea (red arrows show our route)
Approaching Taha’a and Raiatea
Entering into the lagoon through Teavapiti Pass
The fringing reef, always under water, sometimes only a few centimetres deep
A fisherman’s hut on a coral reef
Hurepiti Bay, our stopover on Taha’a
In the bay we found three well kept moorings so picked one up, they belong to ‘Vanilla Tours’, a company that, according to the guidebook, offers half day ethno-botanical trips around the island. The contact name we had was ‘Alain’ but it was his son that answered the phone and came out to see us in his dinghy.
The deal is that you can use the mooring if you sign up to the tour. We were keen anyway but I’m sure we could have negotiated a price for the night without the tour.
Alain and his wife arrived on Taha’a by sailing boat over thirty years ago when they were sailing around the world. They fell in love and stayed. A few years later, they bought a 4x4 to take their young son to school as there were no roads at the time. Since they now had a vehicle, the started Vanilla Tours offering tourists a chance to visit the island and learn something about it.
Three years ago, the son returned from France, having completed his studies as an aeronautical engineer and got fed up with the rat race and took over Vanilla Tours from his dad.
To tell the truth, we were disappointed with the tour. The son is very pleasant and what he did tell us was very interesting, but he could have taught us so much more. We visited a vanilla plantation which was worthwhile and a new rum distillery but, for example, he never mentioned copra, a mainstay of the Taha’a economy. The plants he showed us were mainly brought by the missionaries and since and he never really talked about the plants the Polynesians had brought with them or the ones that arrived by themselves.
The Vanilla Tours home, built in the traditional way
Caramor in Hurepiti Bay (the small one)
On Taha’a there is no postal delivery but you can have a bread baguette dropped off in your purpose made baguette box
Vanilla is a liana, originally from Central America where it is pollinated by insects and a small humming bird. To grow vanilla in a plantation, you first have to establish the supporting trees, which will also provide the shade required by the vanilla plants. Different species are used for this, including acacias.
Once the vanilla plants are established, a plantation worker pulls the end shoots away from the support and allows them to dangle. These shoots will flower. For a vanilla pod (the fruit) to form, the flower needs to be pollinated and without the right insects this is impossible naturally. It proved a real headache for the pioneers who tried to establish vanilla plantations around the world.
Although the stamen (male reproductive organ of a flower) and the pistil (female organ) are close to each other, vanilla flowers cannot self-fertilise, it is the way nature has evolved to avoid inbreeding. Since humans aren’t interested in the resilience of the seed, and only in the taste of the vanilla, they fertilise the flower by hand, using the pollen from the flower’s stamen.
Removing the pollen from the stamen with a small stick
Inserting the pollen into the stigma at the top of the pistil
A fertilised flower doesn’t drop off, after a few weeks the stems start to swell, slowly transforming into vanilla pods
The whole process is very labour intensive and thwart with difficulties on Taha’a. The plant needs a cold period (ideally 18˚C) to trigger the flowering, with global warming, this seldom happens. Alain’s entire plantation of 600 plants was wiped out by a pathogen a few years ago. He didn’t bother starting again. The price of vanilla is interesting for the grower, however, on Taha’a, they were charging US$75 for 100g. Worldwide, the demand for vanilla far outstrips the supply, so when a producer nation is hit by a disease or a natural disaster, the world price increases exponentially.
Taha’a is a lush and beautiful island, it was a shame that the weather wasn’t very good the day we were there. Everyone we passed was friendly and smiling.
We stayed another night on the mooring and sailed for Bora Bora the next day.
Sailing out of Hurepiti Bay
Heading towards Paipai Pass on our way out of the lagoon (my red arrows mark the narrow pass between the reefs)